The irony about general intelligence is that ordinary folks of average intelligence recognize its variance across people, its generality across domains, and its importance in life. Yet educated elites meanwhile often remain implacably opposed to the very concept of general intelligence, and deny its variance, generality, and importance. Professors and students at elite universities are especially prone to this pseudohumility. They socialize only with other people of extraordinarily high intelligence, so the width of the whole bell curve lies outside their frame of reference. I have met theoretical physicists who claimed that any human could understand superstring theory and quantum mechanics if only he or she was given the right educational opportunities. Of course, such scientists talk only with other physicists with IQs above 140, and seem to forget that their janitors, barbers, and car mechanics are in fact real humans too, so they can rest comfortably in the envy-deflecting delusion that there are no significant differences in general intelligence.
Even within my own field, evolutionary psychologists tend to misunderstand general intelligence as a psychological adaptation in its own right, often misconstruing it as a specific mental organ, module, brain area, or faculty. However, it is not viewed that way by most intelligence researchers who, instead, regard general intelligence as an individual-differences construct—like the constructs “health,” “beauty,” or “status.” Health is not a bodily organ; it is an abstract construct or “latent variable” that emerges when one statistically analyzes the functional efficiencies of many different organs. Because good genes, diet, and exercise tend to produce good hearts, lungs, and antibodies, the vital efficiencies of circulatory, pulmonary, and immune systems tend to positively correlate, yielding a general “health” factor. Likewise, beauty is not a single sexual ornament like a peacock’s tail; it is a latent variable that emerges when one analyzes the attractiveness of many different sexual ornaments throughout the face and body (such as eyes, lips, skin, hair, chest, buttocks, and legs, plus general skin quality, hair condition, muscle tone, and optimal amount and distribution of fat). Similarly, general intelligence is not a mental organ, but a latent variable that emerges when one analyzes the functional efficiencies of many different mental organs (such as memory, language ability, social perceptiveness, speed at learning practical skills, and musical aptitude). ...
In the 1970s, critics of intelligence research such as Leon Kamin and Stephen Jay Gould wrote many diatribes insisting that general intelligence had none of these correlations with other biological traits such as height, physical health, mental health, brain size, or nerve conduction speed. Mountains of research since then have shown that they were wrong, and today general intelligence dwells comfortably at the center of a whole web of empirical associations stretching from genetics through neuroscience to creativity research. Still, the anti-intelligence dogma continues unabated, and a conspicuous contempt for IQ remains, among the liberal elite, a fashionable indicator of one’s agreeableness and openness.
Yet this overt contempt for the concept of intelligence has never undermined our universal worship of the intelligence-based meritocracy that drives capitalist educational and occupational aspirations. All parents glow with pride when their children score well on standardized tests, get into elite universities that require high test scores, and pursue careers that require elite university degrees. The anti-intelligence dogma has not deterred liberal elites from sulking and ranting about the embarrassing stupidity of certain politicians, the inhumanity of inflicting capital punishment on murderers with subnormal IQs, or the IQ-harming effects of lead paint or prenatal alcoholism. Whenever policy issues are important enough, we turn to the concept of general intelligence as a crucial explanatory variable or measure of cognitive health, despite our Gould-tutored discomfort with the idea.
You’ve probably heard that IQ tests are now widely considered outdated, biased, and useless, and that there’s more to cognitive ability than general intelligence—there are also traits like social intelligence, practical intelligence, emotional intelligence, creativity, and wisdom. Strikingly, these claims originate mostly from psychology professors at Harvard and Yale. Harvard is home to Howard Gardner, advocate of eight “multiple intelligences” (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist). Yale is home to Peter Salovey, advocate of emotional intelligence, and was, until recently, home to Robert Sternberg, advocate of three intelligences (academic, social, and practical). (To be fair, I think the notions of interpersonal, social, and emotional intelligence do have some merit, but they seem more like socially desired combinations of general intelligence, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and/or extraversion, than distinctive dimensions that extend beyond the Central Six.)
Is it an accident that researchers at the most expensive, elite, IQ-screening universities tend to be most skeptical of IQ tests? I think not. Universities offer a costly, slow, unreliable intelligence-indicating product that competes directly with cheap, fast, more-reliable IQ tests. They are now in the business of educational credentialism. Harvard and Yale sell nicely printed sheets of paper called degrees that cost about $160,000 ($40,000 for tuition, room, board, and books per year for four years). To obtain the degree, one must demonstrate a decent level of conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness in one’s coursework, but above all, one must have the intelligence to get admitted, based on SAT scores and high school grades. Thus, the Harvard degree is basically an IQ guarantee.
Elite universities do not want to be undercut by competitors. They do not want their expensive IQ-warranties to suffer competition from cheap, fast IQ tests, which would commodify the intelligence-display market and drive down costs. Therefore, elite universities have a hypocritical, love-hate relationship with intelligence tests. They use the IQ-type tests (such as the SAT) to select students, to ensure that their IQ-warranties have validity and credibility. Yet, they seem to agree with the claim by Educational Testing Service that the SAT is not an IQ test, and they vehemently deny that their degrees could be replaced by IQ tests in the competition for social status, sexual attractiveness, and employment. Alumni of such schools also work very hard to maintain the social norm that, in casual conversation, it is acceptable to mention where one went to college, but not to mention one’s SAT or IQ scores. If I say on a second date that “the sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term,” I am basically saying “my SAT scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my IQ is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability, and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.” The information content is the same, but while the former sounds poetic, the latter sounds boorish.
There are vested interests at work here, including not just the universities but the testing services. The most important U.S. intelligence-testing institution is the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the SAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE tests. ETS is a private organization with about 2,500 employees, including 250 Ph.D.s. It apparently functions as an unregulated monopoly, accountable only to its Board of Trustees. Although nominally dedicated to the highest standards of test validity, ETS is also under intense legal pressure to create tests that “are free of racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic, and other forms of bias.” This means, in practice, that ETS must attempt the impossible. It must develop tests that accurately predict university performance by assessing general intelligence, since general intelligence remains by far the best predictor of academic achievement. Yet, since intelligence testing remains such a politically incendiary topic in the United States, it is crucial for ETS to take the position that its “aptitude” and “achievement” tests are not tests of general intelligence. Further, its tests must avoid charges of bias by yielding precisely equal distributions of scores across different ethnic groups, sexes, and classes—even when those groups do have somewhat different distributions of general intelligence. So, the more accurate the tests are as indexes of general intelligence, the more biased they look across groups, and the more flack ETS gets from political activists. On the other hand, the more equal the test outcomes are across groups, the less accurate the tests are as indexes of general intelligence, the less well they predict university performance, and the more flack ETS gets from universities trying to select the best students. ETS may be doing the best it can, given the hypocrisies, taboos, and legal constraints of the American cognitive meritocracy. However, it may be useful for outsiders to understand its role in higher education not just as a gate keeper but as a flack absorber [should be "flak catcher"]. ETS throws itself on the hand grenade of the IQ test controversy to protect its platoon mates (elite universities) from the shrapnel.
May 3, 2009